Getting Lost in City Directories

This post is a little later in the week than normal. That\’s because I finally broke a major brick wall in my family history research by using city directories.

I took a day trip to the Archives of Ontario on April 19th with members of the Kawartha Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. My purpose was to look at the Toronto City Directories on microfilm to track my great grandparents John W McDonald and Edna Johnson. On a whim I decided to try and look for my grandmother Madelynn Douglas\’ family. I never met my grandmother, and the only information I had on her was that she had a brother Marshall and a sister Irene. I did not know her parents\’ names, or even a date of birth. Well, by looking at the directory for 1948 I found her! I took note of the address (600 Roselawn Avenue) and then looked through the rest of the Douglas names in the directory. I found the following people also at that address:

Jas H Douglas
Lawrence J Douglas
Marshall Douglas

By looking at other years I was also able to find an Irene Douglas living at this address as well. Using the information I gleaned from the directories, I\’ve managed to find and track the family through the voter\’s lists on Ancestry back to 1935. I\’ve determined that James H Douglas and his wife Mary are my great grandparents. Lawrence and Irene are of voting age in the early 1940\’s, which means they are over 21 (the voting age at the time). This means that they were born before 1921. I managed to find a Douglas family in Toronto in the 1921 census that has a Lawrence and Irene listed as children. They are at a different address than 600 Roselawn. Thanks to inter library loan between the AO and my local library, I\’ve been bringing in a few years of city directories microfilms at a time to track the family back from 1935 to 1921, to try and determine if the 1921 family belongs to me.

If you haven\’t looked at city directories, then you are missing out. I can\’t believe I didn\’t think to go this route before for my Douglas family. They contain a wealth of information on an individual:

  • occupation
  • place of employment
  • home address
  • whether they owned or rented their home
  • others living with them
  • In the Toronto directories I looked at for the WWII years, those in active service had \”act ser\” next to their names. This gives you another avenue of research for your ancestor. 
The directories are usually broken up into 3 sections. There will be a business directory, a surname directory, and the last is a street directory. The street directory is helpful for you to see who your ancestor\’s neighbours are, and how the neighbourhood looked. Was there a church close by? Perhaps they worshiped there. Who\’s their next door neighbour? Perhaps that person was a witness to a marriage or baptism.
In the beginning of the directory are all kinds on information about the area. You can see names and addresses of churches, commuity groups, and government institutions. If your ancestor held public office, then they\’ll be listed in the front pages. You can lose yourself looking at ads for area businesses. There\’s also usually statistical data about the area. For instance, in the 1926 Toronto directory:
  • The population of Toronto proper was 650, 055. The surrounding suburbs\’ population was 95,181. 
  • In 1925 The Toronto Hydro Electric system served 143, 648 customers
  • There were 333 churches
  • There were 167 schools
  • 60% of the population were home owners
I\’ve compiled a list of places to look for city directories:

General Sites

  • Internet Archive has many city directories in their database. These are free to view and free to download. You can download either the whole directory, or just a page by right clicking on the image of the page, and saving as a picture. In the search box, use the key words \”City directories\” and the name of the area you are looking for to see if it has been uploaded to the site.
  • Ancestry has a database called Canada, City and Area Directories, 1819-1906. They cover various cities across Canada. 
  • Check the local library of the area you are researching. Many libraries have collections of directories, either originals or on microfilm. If you live in a bigger city, check to see if your local library has other cities on microfilm. For instance, the Toronto Public Library system has directories for British Columbia and Quebec as well. 
  • Our Roots have digital images of city directories among their many local histories. Use their search function to see what\’s available. 
  • Library and Archives Canada has directories from different parts across the country. They come in print, microfilm , and digital forms.
  • FamilySearch has many directories available on microfilm. Check out the wiki for what they have and microfilm numbers.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Prince Edward Island

  • The Island Register has a great chart listing various directories and where to find them. Some have been transcribed on their site.
  • The University of Prince Edward Island\’s Robertson Library has some city directories in their holdings. They can only be viewed onsite.

    Nova Scotia
    • Nova Scotia Archives has the 1907-1908 directory online. Onsite, they have both print and microfilm of various years. Contact the Archives for availability.
    • City of Halifax Archives has directories in their holdings for both Halifax and Dartmouth.
    New Brunswick
    • BAnQ has city directories for both Quebec City and Montreal. They cove various years from 1822-2010, and are available online.
    • Don\’s List has various Montreal directories online. You should also take a look at the Ottawa directories they have. The Ottawa directories also include Hull.
    • The Archives of Ontario has not only Toronto directories on microfilm. They have city and county directories from all over the province, going back to the 1800\’s. As I mentioned above, they do inter library loan if you aren\’t able to look at them onsite.
    • Queen\’s University has some directories in their holdings. Contact them for rules of access.
    British Columbia
    The Territories
    A few final reminders when researching city directories:
    • Always read the front few pages to see who\’s been included. For instance, in the 1926 Toronto directory, these people weren\’t included:
    1. Maids, domestic servants, and employed young girls under the age of 18
    2. Married women and female relatives over 18 that are unemployed
    3. Young girls living at home and not employed
    4. Students in all levels of schooling, including colleges and universities
    5. Office and messenger boys, and boys working in factories under 18 years of age
    6. Children under school age
    7. Inmates of hospitals, asylums, convents, orphan\’s homes, and institutions
    8. \”Foreigners\” from China, Russia, Balkans, and Central Europe. 
    9. Transients living in hotels, boarding houses, and rooming houses
    • Also check for the index to abbreviations. Checking this can save you a lot of grief trying to figure out what that occupation is supposed to be, or what an asterisk beside their name means.
    • Due to printing deadlines, the information may not be the most current. If your ancestor moved to the area in 1921, then they may not show up until 1922.
    • A lot of directories have an \”Addendum\”. This is an alphabetical list of people and businesses that were added too late to be inserted into the regular directory. 
    • As with census records, check variations for your ancestor\’s name. In my recent research, Madelynn Douglas was listed as \”Madeline\”. Also check under middle names. Through researching voter\’s lists later, I realized that though Madelynn\’s brother was listed as \”Marshall Douglas\” in city directories, in voter\’s lists he is \”George M Douglas\”. Even her father switched between \”James H\” and \”Henry J\”in the directories.
    Well, back down the rabbit hole for me. I have more searching to do in directories…..

    4 thoughts on “Getting Lost in City Directories

    1. Great work Candice! I've made similar discoveries by having the patience to scroll through pages one by one. With digitized images you can't rely on the indexing of OCR documents to be correct or complete! Well done!


    2. Thanks! I was so excited to finally break through this particular wall that I almost let out giant BOOYAH in the middle of the Ontario Archives :). Sometimes the good old fashioned way is best. It gives you eye strain and takes longer, but it can be so worth it!


    3. Yes they do. The public libraries of most of the major cities have rather extensive collections. To save on space, I've used the tip of checking your local library under the general sites section. Thank you for providing the link to Vancouver's collection!


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